Publication date: Summer 1940
Author: Bob Kane
The opening narration crawl not only promises that this will involve the Joker, but also the Cat! Clearly they’re leading off with precisely what made the first issue a success. Let’s see if it works. Our story begins with Bruce so bored he’s taken to beating a child at chess:
The metaphors and dramatic ironies are so thick you could cut them with a knife. Thankfully, Bruce and Dick aren’t left chafing in their pajamas for long. The morning’s paper delivers the news that the Joker is still alive! (Inaction? Didn’t they just fight him yesterday?)
Batman’s response is so bizarre and dickish that I can but reproduce it:
I suppose this is the end result of tolerating vigilantism. Still, we got to Clockwork Orange levels of dystopia pretty quickly. I look forward to next issue, when Batman decides to round up all the Jews because their social inferiority promotes crime.
Meanwhile, a criminal syndicate formulates its own plan. In a complete 180 from their original position (from Fritz Lang’s “M”–the Joker is a menace who must be killed), they want Joker as their new leader, to replace the recently deceased “Chief.” They’ve got a job in mind–the number two headline this morning is the impeding shipment of the priceless “Pharaoh Gems”–and they figure Joker’s just the genius to do it. So they’ll break him out of the hospital.
Now the stage is set for a madcap, Weekend at Bernie’s-style screwball comedy, as Batman, the police, and the criminals fight over who gets to wheel Joker’s pale almost-corpse out the front door.
We start with the criminals. The crime syndicate, which is literally called Crime Syndicate, Inc., makes its way into the hospital by ones and twos, claiming kinship to sick relatives inside. Once they get there, however, the kid gloves come off, and the angry mobster gloves come on.
They round up enough surgeons and nurses and the like for the crucial operation the Joker needs in order to survive. The doctors conduct the risky operation, men with guns all around, and it is eventually a success.
Meanwhile, however, the police are arriving–not because they’re aware of any disturbance, but simply for their usual nightly vigil.
And the last player in today’s game of JokerBall appears immediately, getting the cops’ attention.
The cops decide to try and trap the Batman, but he kicks them off the roof as soon as they climb up.
(Note that the Commissioner’s statement is actually true, although you and I have seen Batman attack police outside of Gotham here and inside of Gotham here. This is because those issues were published in August and September of 1940, whereas this is the summer issue of Batman. Given the different release schedules, there’s no good way to order these posts, but I’ll do my best to keep things straight.)
Anyway, Batman jumps off the roof into a waiting car, and drives off, the cops hot on his tail. He ends up crashing into a tree, narrowly escaping the burning, twisted wreckage, and flees into a nearby barn. The police batter the door down to find hay on fire all around them and Batman poised like Poseidon, ready to spear them with a pitchfork. And–oh, shit–
I’m guessing that red glow is “pain” but it sure looks like a spray of blood. Batman’s gone off the rails this time. Killing cops, crashing cars, burning barns… And he’s not through yet! The police closing in, he jumps down onto a horse and gallops for safety, only to be shot down!
They gather around him, and pull off his mask, to reveal…
I have three reactions to this.
1. That’s rather uncharitable; how do you know Circus Charlie isn’t the Batman? Robin is “Circus Dick,” after all. Maybe there’s a lot more to this crook than meets the eye.
2. Obviously CC isn’t Batman, but I can’t blame the police for falling for the distraction–I didn’t realize the twist, either. It’s pretty clever.
3. It just goes to show, you can’t trust the Batman. Besides all the other reasons (the punching, the breaking and entering, the torture, etc.), you don’t even know if it’s the same guy in that suit from one appearance to the next.
While the police are discovering the trick, the criminals are back at the hospital, loading Joker’s unconscious form into their getaway car. An old lady selling chewing gum watches, then steps around a corner to take off her make-up, revealing–The Cat! What’s she doing here?
Batman literally carries her over to his car–she seems pretty helpless, definitely not a fighter. (I wonder if that shift happens before or after Frank Miller reimagines her in Year One as an S&M themed prostitute?) Terrified that Batman will take her to the police, the Cat makes a deal–information about the Joker’s current whereabouts in exchange for amnesty. Batman agrees.
The Cat reveals several pieces of information to Batman (and Robin, who is also in the car):
-The criminal syndicate wants to make Joker their new leader.
-They’re keeping Joker up in a flying plane until he recovers, where the police will never think to look.
-Their base is at Weasel Hunting Lodge. (“Weasel” being the name of the man currently in charge of the rescue operation.)
What she hasn’t revealed, (but what the narrator helpfully points out for us) is that she wants to see Joker taken out of play to prevent him from getting to the Pharaoh Gems first. Looks like that’s the other MacGuffin of this story, the prize at the end of the game. Joker is just a means to an end. However, it remains to be seen whether the sociopath is even interested in fulfilling his rescuers’ intentions. Either way, the Cat is taking no chances.
And neither is the Batman. By putting radioactive material on the floor of his car, he’s made the Cat easily traceable (and probably deathly ill, but whatever). Robin follows her trail, while Batman heads for the lodge to wait for Joker and the criminal syndicate to return.
A week goes by, as the Joker’s plane zips around the country, never staying in one place longer than it takes to refuel. Soon the Joker is back to full health.
Joker explains that one of the criminals has already planted a poison needle instrumental in obtaining the Pharaoh Gems… but unfortunately, none of them will be bearing the dividends. In gratitude for their rescuing him from the hospital, he doesn’t kill them, but he does administer a sleeping potion. This news does not make Weasel happy.
Joker casually remarks that he’s already removed the powder from Weasel’s bullets as Batman crashes in through the window. While Batman busies himself making bowling puns and throwing crooks at each other, the Joker makes a stylish exit, going for the Pharaoh Gems.
Meanwhile, it appears the Cat has been just as busy as everybody else this past week, worming her way into the affections of E. S. Arthur, the rich bastard whose jewelry started all the fuss. He keeps them in his castle, the prick. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. When the Cat arrives to view the Gems, she finds Arthur already deceased, sporting a lovely Joker’s grin. And the murderer isn’t far behind.
Robin bursts in, tackling the Joker. They fight, and he does well for a bit–Joker’s still weak, after all–but Robin succumbs to a blow from a club taken off the wall, and Joker kneels beside him, ready to inject Robin with his deadly poison. Surprisingly, the Cat offers to give Joker the Gems in exchange for Robin’s life. Interesting reaction…
But maybe she was only distracting him long enough for the Batman, never far behind his sidekick, to swing in on a chandelier and kick Joker in the face.
This is pretty goddamn absurd, but look at it from Batman’s point of view–he’s really bored (he spent the past week camped out outside the Weasel Lodge, waiting for Joker to get better), Joker hasn’t killed anybody lately (well, nobody important), Batman’s in an Errol Flynn kind of mood, and most importantly, this demonstration of mercy, manly bravado, and swordsmanship is probably meant to impress the Cat.
It backfires, though–during the swordfight, Joker manages to shove him off the balcony of the castle. Batman only barely grabs a handful of vines to stop his fall. By the time he climbs back up, Robin and the Cat have barricaded themselves inside the room, and Joker is outside, gleefully shooting flaming arrows at the wooden door. Batman punches Joker into unconsciousness, and then has to leave him there, in the burning castle, because Batman already has to carry an unconscious Robin up the rope ladder to the hovering Bat-Plane. And the Cat can’t carry Joker because she’s a girl, or something. Not that she’s interested in taking a ride, anyway.
As the Cat dives into the water, Robin complains that she’s getting away with the cask of jewels. But Batman reveals he removed the jewels while they were dangling on the rope ladder.
Wait, he had time to save jewels but not the Joker? Man, what a dick.
In fact, this whole story is about betrayal, deception, and untrustworthiness. You could consider the guiding principle to be Objectivism-lite, or at least capitalism–everyone acts in their own self-interest, betraying and thwarting and punching each other if necessary, all for the sake of a monetary goal. And it’s not as though Batman wins because he’s morally superior–after all, he lets the Cat go (for the second time), and leaves Joker to burn–Batman comes out with the prize in the end simply because he played the game better.
Personally, I thought this issue had an excellent concept, and some good scenes, but it felt like they spent too much time on set-up and not enough time on the payoff. The second half of the story felt rushed. Still, they did an excellent job for balancing many equal active players and showing their tactics at work.
The police came off the worst, I think, losing a serial killer from right under their noses. Certainly the criminals were able to use their skills at deception to successfully rescue and heal the Joker. And the Cat was equally able to use her appearance to manipulate both Batman and E. S. Arthur. But the criminals and the Cat both ran up against the Joker, who is simply too unpredictable to manipulate. And then the Joker ran into Batman, who is too brave to be intimidated and, as we saw, too clever to let anyone else get away with the jewels.
It just goes to show you, you can’t trust anybody in Gotham City. Except to be selfish, dishonest dicks. That you can count on.
Tune in next week for the second of four stories in Batman #2 as Baturdays continues.